Monday, May 31, 2010

The Fetishism of Commodities

Thomas Riggins

Towards the end of the first chapter of Das Kapital, after having established the validity of the labor theory of value, Marx has a section on the Fetishism of Commodities. To understand this section is to understand the whole first chapter and also to see why socialism is necessary. This article is an attempt to explain the meaning of this section and to apply its lessons to our times.

A commodity looks simple enough says the bourgeois economist. Most bourgeois economists say it is any object with a use value that somebody wants and is willing to pay for and its value is determined by supply and demand. Nothing drives such a common sense economist more to distraction than reading Karl Marx who says a commodity is "a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." What can Marx mean? Economics is a science, even a mathematical science, what has it got to do with metaphysics and theology?

Take a wooden table, says Marx. It is just wood that human labor has turned into a table and taken to market. Wood + Labor = Table. Where is the mystery? When it gets to the market the table finds itself in the company of the stool and the chair. All three have use values, are made of the same wood, and may be in equal supply and equal demand-- yet each has its own different price.

Why these different prices? Same wood, same demand, same supply. They are all the products of human labor. What is the difference between them that justifies different prices? The prices are reflections of the underlying values of the products. Could the values be different? What does Marx say determines value? It is the different quantities of socially necessary labor time embodied in the commodities.

The table, the stool, and the chair three "things" that are related to each other as the embodiment of the social relations and necessary labor of human beings that created them. Human social relations have been objectified as the relations between non human things. The chair is more valuable than the table but the reason is now hidden away from the perception of people.

"A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing," Marx writes, "simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relations of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour."

To find an analogy Marx tells us we have to turn to the "mist-enveloped regions of the religious world." In that world the inventions of the human mind take on an independent existence and humans begin to interact with their own fantastical creations as if they were really independently existing objective things. This is similar to the Fetishism of Commodities. All the commodities we see about us are part of the sum total of all the socially produced objects and services created by human labor in our society. People all over the world are making things which are traded, shipped, sold, resold, etc. But their use values cannot be realized until they are sold--i.e., exchanged, especially exchanged for money. But why are some more expensive than others? Why do some have more value than others? Supply and demand has a role to play in setting PRICE but it merely causes price to fluctuate around VALUE.

The fact that we know that value results from the socially necessary labor time spent in making commodities "by no means," Marx says, "dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves."

This is because we are so use to how the market operates under capitalism, how prices fluctuate, commodities rise and fall in prices, the working people naturally just think the values (which they don't differentiate from prices) are products of the natural world, that is, are functions of the things for sale or barter themselves. This is why "supply and demand" seems to be the basis of the value of things. They don't see it's all really the result of the socially necessary labor time expended in the labor process that is the determining factor in value

This leads Marx to say , "The determination of the magnitude of value by labor time therefore is a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities."

We are reminded, that to understand the real nature of a social formation we have to reverse our knowledge of its historical development. We begin with the full fledged capitalist system and we try to figure why the prices of things are the way they are. Looking at the mature system we don't really see its primitive origins. In the same way a religious person looking at a human being fails to see an ape in the background.

This leads Marx to say of his own theory, "When I state that coats and boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labor, the absurdity of the statement is self evident." This has been remarked upon both by the most astute of thinkers (Bertrand Russell) and the most pedestrian (Ayn Rand).

The problem is that the bourgeoisie looks upon an HISTORICALLY TRANSIENT economic formation, its own, as an eternally existing social order. Of course prices are set by supply and demand. What is that crazy Marx talking about? As the economist Brad Delong said, he had NEVER known anyone who thought that way.

Well, lets look at something other than the full blown capitalist system at work. Marx says, "The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production."

Marx gives the example of Robinson Crusoe. He chooses Robinson because he was a popular example used in the texts of the day. Robinson has to make everything for himself, obtain his own food, and provide his own shelter. It is pretty obvious that the things that are most important for his survival are those he expends most of his labor time upon and are consequently the most valuable to him.

Marx then says we should consider a community of free people working together cooperatively to make all things necessary for their society. Whereas Robinson was just making use values for himself, in this community a social product is being created. The people have to set aside part of the product for future production, but the rest they can consume. How would they divide it in a fair manner? They would divide the product in proportion to the labor time each individual had contributed to the joint production of the social product.

This is how barter went on in the Middle Ages. Peasants knew very well how much labor time was involved in making cheese, for example, and in making a pair of shoes . If it took twice as long to make a pound cheese that to make a pair of shoes, you can be sure that no one was going to trade more than a half pound of cheese for his shoes. It is only in the complicated processes of commodity production, especially in capitalism, that the Fetichism of Commodities begins to manifest itself and the true nature of the source of value is lost.

People have confused consciousness in our world. Our alienation from our own social product, the effects of commodity fetichism, and the continuing influence of religion all work together to keep us confused and off guard. But seeing what our condition is with respect to such mental blights also tells how far along the road to liberation we are (not far) and how far we have to go (quite a distance I fear).

The world, though in a distorted way, is reflected in these distorted forms of consciousness. "The religious world," Marx tells us, "is but the reflex of the real world." And, for our capitalist society where all human relations, and relations of humans with the things they create, are reducible to commodification based on the value of "homogeneous human labor" the best form of religion is CHRISTIANITY and especially PROTESTANTISM (or alternatively, DEISM [and maybe for our day we can toss in SECULAR HUMANISM]).

Why is this? Marx says it is because the idea of "abstract man" is the basis of the the religious outlook of these systems. A religion based on an abstract view of "human nature" is just the ticket for an economic system that the bourgeoisie says is also based on "human nature." The religion reinforces the basic presuppositions of the capitalist view of abstract man and since CATHOLICISM represents a pre-bourgeois human abstraction more suitable to feudalism it is the Protestant form that is more congruent with bourgeois conceptions.

As long as humans are confused and alienated, and ignorant of how capitalism works and are mystified by their relation to the objects of their labor they will never be free, or free from the spell of religion, according to Marx. "The religious reflex of the real world," he writes, can only vanish "when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature."

The next two sentences from Marx are extremely important as they explain, in very general terms, the failure of the Russian Revolution and the downfall of the socialist world system. The first sentence describes what the Bolsheviks set out to do in 1917. "The life processes of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan."

This is certainly what was attempted-- first by war communism, then the NEP, and then by the five year plans, forced collectivization and industrialization. But why the failure? Where were the "freely associated men?"

To pull off this great transformation, the goal of communism, Marx wrote "demands for society a certain material ground-work or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development."

In other words, the seizure of power was premature. The material ground-work had not been sufficiently developed. If Lenin represented the negation of the ancien regime, Gorbachev and Yeltsin represented the negation of the negation-- brought about by the failure of that long and painful process of development to properly develop production by freely associated human beings. For all its efforts the socialist world still belonged to that world in which the processes of production had the mastery over human beings and not the other way around. So we must still put up with the Fetichism of Commodities for a while longer.

The present crisis gives us an opportunity to educate working people about this Fetichism and how to free themselves from it. GM is about to be 70% owned by the government and the UAW will have a stake of about 17.5%. This leaves 12.5% in the hands of the capitalists. The commodities the workers make (cars) don't have a life of their own. Their value is determined by the socially necessary labor time it takes workers to make them. They are extensions of the being of the working people not the capitalists who have proved themselves totally incompetent.

The working people of this country far out number the number of monopoly capitalists-- both industrial and financial. The UAW and the AFL-CIO as well other Unions must demand that the government represent the interests of the working class majority. The 87.5% joint Government-worker control of GM must not be used to put the private interests back in control, but to rationalize the auto industry by means of worker control, eliminate the capitalists and the Fetichism that keeps people thinking private interests have a role to play in production, and lay the ground work for further nationalizations in the future.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Thomas Riggins

Discussion Seventeen Hsuan-tsang [Xuanzang] in a series on Chinese Philosophy

“How are you today Fred? I’ve been looking over Fung Yu-lan’s exposition of Hsuan-tsang’s thought. Its pretty complicated.”

“You’re telling me? Nevertheless, we should have a go at it. I’ve read over Chan and am ready to give it the old college try.”

“Let’s go.”

“I’ll start with background based on Chan’s introductory remarks. Hsuan-tsang (596-644) was quite a character. He entered a Buddhist monastery when he was thirteen. Then moved around China studying under different masters. Finally he went off to India to study Buddhism at its source and with Sanskrit masters. He spent over ten years in India, wrote a famous book about his journey, and returned to China with over six hundred original manuscripts. He spent the rest of his life with a group of translators rendering seventy five of the most important works into Chinese. All of this work was sponsored by the Emperor of the newly established T’ang Dynasty.”

“Sounds like he had an interesting life.”

“He certainly did, but too short. He died in his forty eighth year. He created what Chan calls the ‘most philosophical of Buddhist schools.’ It is called the ‘Consciousness-Only School’ and is based on the Indian Buddhist school, founded by Asanga (c.410-500) and his brother Vasubandhu (c.420-500), known as Yogacara (way of Yoga). What Hsuan-tsang did, among other things, was to take a major work of Vasubandhu, Treatise in Thirty Verses on Consciousness-Only (Vijnatimatratrimshika), plus ten commentaries on it, including that of Dharmapala (439-507), add his own views, stir all this together and come up with his own concoction called Ch’eng-wei-shih lun (Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Consciousness-Only). This work was in Sanskrit , Vijnaptimatratasiddhi, but was translated into Chinese by his student K’ue-chi (632-682) who wrote sixty chapters of commentary based on his translation notes. This is the Ch’eng-wei-shih lun shu-chi (Notes on the Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Consciousness-Only). Chan says we couldn’t really understand Hsuan-tsang without it.”

“Great. Now we are going to try to understand him based on our own notes from Chan, Fung and a few others.”

“That’s how it goes Karl.”

“Well, finish up on Chan’s intro so we can get to the text.”

“OK. In outline, it goes like this. Humans have eight forms of consciousness which are (1-5) the different senses, (6) a concept forming ‘sense-center’ which organizes the raw data of the senses into ordered ideas, (7) a willing and reasoning consciousness or ‘thought-centered’/ self-centered one, and finally (8) one called the “storehouse” or alaya consciousness.”

“What’s that last one? Is it ‘memory’?”

“Much more than that. It's not memory in any conventional Western sense which would be in number seven.”

“So why is called alaya?”

“It's called alaya because all the other ones are ‘stored’ in this one. All these eight consciousnesses are in constant flux. Chan says, ‘It is so called because it stores the “seed” or effects of good and evil deeds which exist from time immemorial and become the energy to produce manifestation. This storehouse consciousness is in constant flux, constantly “perfumed” (influenced) by incoming perceptions and cognitions from external manifestations. At the same time, it endows perceptions and cognitions with the energy of the seeds, which in turn produce manifestations.’”

“Let me chime in here with some Fung. He says, ‘According to the teachings of this school, all sentient beings suffer from two erroneous beliefs: that in the subjective existence of an ego or atman (wo), and that in the objective existence of external things or dharmas (fa). The purpose of the [Consciousness-Only] or Wei-shih school is to destroy these two beliefs by showing that both are equally unreal (empty or shunya). Thus the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun maintains that what we call the “ego” and “things” have “only a false basis and lack any real nature of their own”; their manifestations are “all mental representations dependent upon the evolutions of consciousness.”’”

“Very interesting. Is that it?”

“No, Fung also gives Ku’ei-chi’s comment, which is a good gloss on your quote from Chan. Namely: ‘From this (it may be seen that) the inner consciousness is not, in its essential nature, non-existent, whereas the ego and things, considered as external to the mind, are not, in their essential nature existent. In this way we exclude the heterodox doctrine which clings to the additional reality of objects aside from the mind; we also exclude the erroneous view which, because it wrongly believes in “emptiness,” sets aside consciousness itself as non-existent, thus reducing (everything) to “emptiness.” Equally to avoid (the dogmas of) “emptiness” on the one hand and “being” on the other: this is what the School of [Consciousness-Only] teaches.’”

“That’s great. So we know the alaya is the fundamental consciousness. The other seven are ‘in’ it. Now we must note the three transformations that are always going on as well. The first is just the alaya-vijnana (storehouse consciousness) itself. The second is the transformation brought about by the ‘thought-centered consciousness’ which objectifies the alaya-vijnana as the ‘self’-- specifically as a personal self ‘always accompanied by the evils of self-interest.’ The third is the result of the actions of the senses and the co-ordinator of the senses (the sixth consciousness) constructing out of the alaya-vijnana (unconsciously) an external world (illusory as ‘external’). ‘Because these six consciousnesses,’ Chan says, ‘ have external things [he means so called ‘external’ things] as their objects, they are conditioned by them and are therefore crude, superficial and discontinuous.’”

“Let me interrupt here Fred. This is the place, I think, for me to jump in with my notes from the Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion as they clarify much of what you have said.”

“Go ahead. I welcome the relief.”

“In Chinese this school is called Fa-hsiang or ‘Marks of Existence School.’ Remember the Chinese use ‘fa’ for ‘dharma.’ Let’s take up with the ‘thought-centered’ consciousness, number seven. This is the go between the first six and number eight-- the alaya-vijnana. The ‘self’ arises in this interaction so I’m just going to refer to this seventh type of consciousness as the ‘Ego.’ For this school, the task is to overcome the Ego, recognize the ‘illusory nature of the world’ and thus gain enlightenment -- that is to become bodhi (‘awakened’) so it is suggested that awakening is a better term to use.”

“Awakening to what? To the ultimate ‘Truth’?”

“That is correct Fred. There are three levels of ‘Truth.’ Namely, 1) The Parikalpita level: ‘that which is imagined or conceptualized.... that which people take to be the “objective” world is imagined or conceptualized; i.e., this world is illusory and deceptive; it exists only as a semblance but not as a true reality.’”

“So this is like Kant I suppose-- the noumenal world and the phenomenal world of appearances. I think we can sort of accept this, Karl, if we think of the everyday world on the one hand and the worlds explained by science on the other. What is the second level?”

“The Paratantra level: ‘The level of “contingent nature”.... on this level dharmas enjoy only temporary existence, since everything that arises contingently (i.e., interdependently) possesses neither self-nature nor “reality”....’”

“This is a special use of ‘reality,’ I guess.”

“Yes, somewhat like Plato’s. The ‘real’ is self-subsistent and eternal as well as external-- the objects in the realm of the ideas (the forms) for Plato. Everything in our empirical world is in flux and change, so by this definition ultimately unreal. I think we can accept this level also.”

“What’s the last level?”

“The Tathata (suchness) level: ‘central notion of the Mahayana referring to the absolute, the true nature of things. Tathata is generally explained as being immutable, immobile, and beyond all concepts and distinctions. “Suchness” is the opposite of “that which is apparent”-- phenomena.’ This is the Absolute Reality.”

“Very similar to Kant in many respects Karl.”

“I think so. The noumenal realm is beyond our ability to comprehend (Kant)-- pure reason breaks down. Buddhists can become mystical here but they really don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t say that disparagingly but as a consequence of their own doctrines.”

“Well, this is all very interesting, but Chan points out this school did not have much of a future in China.”

“And why is that?”

“For two reasons. First, it was too ‘Indian.’ Chan says both it and the Three Treatise School we discussed yesterday were simply Indian schools transplanted into China where they ultimately didn’t mesh with the Chinese ‘psyche,’ if I can put it that way. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the school didn’t believe that all people were capable of salvation! As Chan says, it lost prestige ‘because it advocated that some people, being devoid of Buddha-nature, can never achieve Buddhahood, thus clearly betraying the Mahayana ideal of universal salvation.’ This was a really big objection.”

“Are we ready to hit the texts?”

“Yes. I’m going to quote from eight selections from Hsuan-tsang’s Ch’eng wei-shih lun.”

“So what’s the first selection?”

“Its called The Nonexistence of the Self and in it Hsuan-tsang says: ‘Both the world and sacred doctrines declare that the self and dharmas are merely constructions based on false ideas and have no reality of their own.... On what basis are [the self and dharmas] produced. Their characters are all constructions based on the evolution and transformation of consciousness....’”

“Is there a comment?”

“Yes. Chan says: ‘The denial of the ego is the starting point of Buddhist philosophy in general and the Consciousness-Only School in particular. The idealism of Berkeley and that of this school are very much alike. But while Berkeley’s philosophy is built on the assumption of individual minds and therefore finds itself in an “ego-centric predicament.” Buddhist idealism rejects the ego to start with and is therefore able to be free from solipsism.’”

“Fred, we should note that Berkeley also escapes from solipsism as he has more than just individual minds. He rejects ‘matter’ and thinks things only exist as objects of mentation-- esse est percepi- to be is to be perceived- but everything is perceived by the mind of God. Even for Hsuan-tsang there is an ‘ego’-- it's just not the ultimate reality which is the alaya-vijnana.”

“Here is the second selection: The Nonexistence of Dharmas. I’m not going to quote from this selection. You remember the comment I quoted from Chan yesterday when we discussed Chi-tsang. I mean his point on the ‘Four Points of Argumentation.’”

“You mean all that ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes and no.’ ‘neither yes nor no’ type of argumentation. I remember.”

“Well, in the same way Chi-tsang used the Four Points to refute our ordinary conceptions of causality, Hsuan-tsang uses them to argue for the nonexistence of dharmas. The point is, of course, not the absolute nonexistence of dharmas -- but rather that they are phenomenal not noumenal. Chan says, ‘The Four Points of Argumentation are ... employed to refute the doctrines of existence of dharmas. Whether the logic is sound or not, it cannot be denied that Buddhist thinking is rational and methodical, absolutely contrary to the common belief, even among some scholars, that the only mental activity of the Buddhist is intuition. It is significant that in a school chiefly concerned with the thinking process, the rationalistic and methodical elements are so strong.’”

“An interesting point Fred. The rationalistic aspect of Buddhist argumentation is often neglected.”

“Time to move on to selection three: The First Transformation of Consciousness. Here is a quote: [I]t is clear that the self and dharmas separated from consciousness conceived by the heterodoxical and other schools are all unreal.... From this we ought to know that there is really no external sphere of objects. There is only inner consciousness which produced what seems to be the external sphere....’”

“This is Descartes’ Evil Demon with a vengeance!”

“And without the demon. “The characters transformed by consciousness are infinite in variety, but the consciousnesses that transform can be divided into three kinds. The first is the consciousness where fruits ripen at a later time. It is the eighth consciousness. [It is so called] because it possesses in abundance the nature to ripen at later times. The second is called deliberation. It is the seventh consciousness. [It is so-called] because it is continuously in the process of deliberation. The third is called the consciousness that discriminates spheres of objects. It is the same as the first six consciousnesses (the five sense-consciousnesses and the sense-center consciousness. [It is so called] because it discriminates gross spheres of objects....’”

“Vasubandhu called this first (the eighth) the ‘storehouse consciousness’ (alaya-vijnana). This is the fundamental root of all consciousness and it contains the ‘seeds’ of all that we will later experience as the ‘external’ world. The other consciousnesses are responsible for our conception of an ‘external’ world by the way they interact with the alaya-vijnana and cause as it were the germination of the seeds. This process is called ‘perfuming.’”

“That seems to be what is going on Karl. Hsung-tsang says, ‘The act of enabling the seeds that lie within what is perfumed (the storehouse consciousness) to grow, as the hemp plant is perfumed, is called perfuming. As soon as the seeds are produced, the consciousnesses which can perfume become in their turn causes which perfume and produce seeds. The three dharmas (the seeds, the manifestations, and perfuming) turn on and on, simultantaneously acting as cause and effect....’”

“I wonder how much the hemp plant had to do with this. At any rate, this is a perpetual transformation.”

“Yes it is and from it arise what we experience as the four realms of existence, the five stages of transmigration, and the four kinds of living beings.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This is the medieval or ancient Buddhist world view-- their pre-scientific outlook on reality. Here, this will make it clear. This is how Chan puts it in a footnote. ‘In Buddhism, there are four realms which constitute the substances of all existence: earth, water, fire, and air; the five stages of transmigration: the hells, those of ghosts, animals, human beings, and heavenly beings; the four kinds of beings: those produced from the womb, from eggs, from moisture, and through metamorphosis. The Consciousness-Only School, because it denies the reality of the self and dharmas, regards all these as constructions of consciousness.’”

“Well, indeed, I agree this is a construction of consciousness! The ‘four realms’ are the same primary elements of the Greeks (Empedocles). Today we have the Periodic Table. We can’t take transmigration seriously from a scientific point of view, and hells, ghosts, and heavenly beings are definitely out in any case. The ‘four kinds of beings’ is also a group to revise in the light of modern biology. But even then, the modern scientific world view will be considered as only a ‘construction of consciousness.’ I think this would require that the alaya-vijnana be the universal first principle of the world.”

“Lets see. Hsuan-tsang says, ‘By “transformation” is meant that this consciousness [the alaya], from time immemorial, comes into and goes out of existence every moment and changes both before and after, for while it goes out of existence as cause, it comes into existence as effect, and thus is neither permanent nor one.... Being like a violent torrent, it neither comes to an end nor is eternal. As it continues for a long time, some sentient beings will float and others will sink. It is the same with this consciousness....’”

“And I have no idea what that would be like.”

“I don’t think anyone has. Here is an interesting comparison to Hume made by Chan. ‘The theory that consciousness is a constant stream of ideas inevitably reminds one of Hume. The comparison between him and the Consciousness-Only School has been made by Fung Yu-lan among others. Both that school and Hume hold that the mind is nothing but a stream of ideas, that ideas are governed by a causal relationship, and that the external world is ultimately unreal [this may be too much of a claim as to what Hume says]. But Buddhism is free from the skepticism of Hume, for Nirvana is realizable through spiritual cultivation. Furthermore, in Buddhism, but not in Hume, the source of ideas is known and can be controlled.’”

“Fred, I don’t think this quite right. You can’t really say that Hume held to the unreality of the external world. That’s too positive for a skeptic. What he holds is that all our ideas come from impressions of sense but he doesn’t claim to know where these originate-- externally or internally. This is a far cry from claiming that the external world is unreal.”

“Now I’m going to turn to selection four, The Second Transformation of Consciousness.”


“Here Hsuan-tsang explains how the thought- centered consciousness interacts with the alaya-vignana. He writes:
‘...Spontaneously this thought-centered consciousness perpetually takes the storehouse consciousness as an object and is associated with the four basic defilements. What are the four? They are self-delusion, self-view, self-conceit, and self-love. These are the four. Self-delusion means ignorance, lack of understanding of the character of the self, and being unenlightened about the principle of the non-self. Therefore it is called self-delusion. Self-view means clinging to the view that the self exists, erroneously imagining certain dharmas to be the self that are not the self. Therefore it is called self-view. Self-conceit means pride. On the strength of what is being clung to as the self, it causes the mind to feel superior and lofty. It is therefore called self-deceit. Self-love means a greedy desire for the self. It develops deep attachment to what is clung to as the self. It is therefore called self-love.... These four defilements constantly arise and pollute the inner mind and cause the [six] other transforming consciousnesses {the five senses and the self-centered consciousness}to be continuously defiled. Because of this, sentient beings are bound to the cycle of life and death and transmigration and cannot be free from them. Hence they are called defilements.’”

“I can see the benefit of trying to overcome these ‘defilements’ Fred. Not because of any imaginary ‘transmigration’ but just in terms of living a calmer and happier life here and now. If you want to take the cycle of life and death and transmigration in a philosophical way-- in this case metaphorically-- we can say that these defilements of an individual are spread about things (s)he comes into contact with and this perpetuates the cycle. ‘Transmigration’ is just a poetical way of talking about how we can transmit influences from our own lives to those of others. If my self-love influences your self-love then, in a manner of speaking, a little bit of me is ‘reincarnated’ or has transmigrated to you. Let us not, like hoi polloi, take these images literally.”

“I agree Karl. We must transcend the literal meaning to get any insight from this way of thinking. I would also maintain this has to be done with all religious writings-- not just Buddhism.”

“What a world of misery would be overcome if people only understood this.”

“Now I’m going on to the fifth selection, The Third Transformation of Consciousness. This is the relation of the five senses plus the sense-centered or coordinating consciousness. Hsuan puts it this way: ‘The root consciousness is the storehouse consciousness because it is the root from which all pure and impure consciousnesses grow.... By ‘causes’ are meant rising activities of the mind, the sense organs, and spheres of objects. It means that the five consciousnesses arise and manifest themselves, internally based on the root consciousness and externally as a result of a combination of the causes like the rising activities of the mind, the five sense organs, and spheres of objects.’”

“This is fairly confusing, especially when he says the ‘causes’ behind the activities of the mind are both ‘internal’ and ‘external.’ If you hold to consciousness-only there is no ‘external’-- only an apparent external. The external should be an illusion produced by the sense-centered consciousness.”

“You think Hsuan-tsang is confusing? This comment by Chan is just as confusing. ‘[T]he primary concern of the school has always been on characters of dharmas. In accepting them as real, is not quite Mahayana and has therefore been regarded as quasi-Hinayana which, generally speaking, accepts the external world as real. One wonders if the Chinese refusal to regard the world as illusory did not have something to do with the school’s position.’”

“But Fred, this is an Indian school transplanted into China. Chan has already established that this is one of the reasons it failed to ultimately catch on. I don’t know about calling it ‘quasi-Hinayana.’ The problem has to to with the concept ‘real.’ If ‘real’ means ultimately reducible to the alaya-vijnana, then the dharmas are ‘real’ and one doesn’t have to say the world is illusory. The same as with Berkeley. There is no matter. The tree is a percept. Everything ultimately exists because it is a perception in God’s mind. That doesn’t make the things illusory, just non-material. I think the same thing goes for what Hsuan-tsang is saying. Maybe Chan is so confusing because he too is a victim of the ‘Chinese refusal."

“Lets look at selection six then: Consciousness -Only. This section begins with a quote from Vasubandhu: "Thus the various concsiousnesses transform and change. Both discrimination (consciousness) and the object of discrimination Are, because of this, unreal. For this reason, everything is consciousness only." This is explicated thusly by Hsuan-tsang: ‘”The various consciousnesses” refer to the three transforming consciousnesses previously discussed and their mental qualities. They can all transform and appear as the perceiving and the perceived portions. The term “transformation” is thus employed.... Therefore everything produced from causes, and everything seemingly real or unreal, are all inseparable from consciousness. The word “only” is intended to deny that there are real things separated from consciousness, but not to deny that there are mental qualities, dharmas, and so forth inseparable from consciousness. The word “transform” means that the various inner consciousnesses transform and manifest the characters which seem to be the external spheres of the self and dharmas.... Therefore everything is consciousness only, because erroneous discrimination in itself is admitted as a fact. Since “only” does not deny the existence of dharmas not separated from consciousness, therefore true Emptiness [mental qualities--K’uei-chi] and so forth have the nature of being. In this way we steer away from the two extremes of holding that dharmas are real [although they have no natures of their own] or holding that dharmas are unreal [although they do function as causes and effects], establish the principle of Consciousness-Only, and hold correctly to the Middle Path.’”

“These quotes, Fred, clear up the issue we just discussed about the confusion between ‘internal’ and ‘external.’ There really is no ‘external.’ It also clarifies that Chan comment about the dharmas being ‘real.’”

“The next selection concerns several objections raised against the Consciousness-Only School. I’m not going to go over all of them, but since, as Hsuan-tsang says, ‘One’s own principle cannot be established by demolishing those of others,’ I will point out some of his responses to criticisms.”

“I for one am interested in the ‘Two Levels of Truth’ doctrine.”

“His discussion of this point comes from the criticism that if everything is ultimately ‘Emptiness’ then his philosophy of Consciousness-Only is also Empty. He rejects this view. ‘Empty’ is not the same as ‘Nothing.’ It just means the view of hoi polloi that dharmas have real external being is wrong. But consciousness is real. He says, ‘If there were no such consciousness, there would be no worldly (relative) truth, and if there were no worldly truth, there would be no absolute truth, for the Two Levels of Truth are established on the basis of each other. To reject the Two Levels of Truth is to have evil ideas of Emptiness, a disease the Buddhas consider to be incurable. We should realize that some dharmas [which are imagined] are empty and some [which depend on something else, i.e., cause, to be complete-- K’uei-chi] are not....’”

“So why do we think that some dharmas are external?”

“His answer is that, ‘At the time the external spheres are realized through immediate apprehension, they are not taken as external. It is later that the sense-center consciousness discriminates and erroneously creates the notion of externally. Thus the objective spheres immediately apprehended are the perceived portion of the consciousnesses themselves.’”

“So, ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Awakening’ is when we realize that, just as our dreams in sleep, the so-called world of independent reality is really a creation of the mind.”

“Yes. Hsuan-tsang says, ‘This is why the Buddha spoke of the long night of transmigration, because of our failure to understand that the objective spheres of color [and so forth] are consciousness only.’”

“So is there one big mind-- an ocean of consciousness-- or just individual minds?”

“There appear to be many individual streams of consciousness. I think the best view is that the alaya-vijnana of each person is always an endless stream. Individuals are perfumed seeds that develop from the the other seven consciousness interaction with the alaya as temporary aggregates. They dissolve eventually back into the stream. Then a new ‘Ego’ is perfumed. Reincarnation may be that the new aggregate contains reperfumed seeds from the old aggregate-- but there is no permanent ego or self. I have to agree with Chan when he says, ‘In the final analysis, Buddhism is mysticism and a religion. All speculation is but a way to Nirvana.’”

“That’s it?”

“More or less. There is a final section which is just a lot of quotes from Vasubandhu but we have basically covered this philosophy.”

“OK. What’s on the agenda for tomorrow then?”

“Ch’an Buddhism, better known by its Japanese name of ‘Zen.’ So bone up on it tonight so we can discuss Hui-neng (638 to 713).

“See you tomorrow Fred.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Misunderstanding Marx: Brad Delong and the Collapse of Neoliberalism

Thomas Riggins

The blogosphere has lately witnessed some interest in a lecture, "Understanding Marxism" posted by Professor Brad Delong of the University of California and a former Clinton administration official. Delong calls himself a neoliberal economist and his lecture is such a confused jumble of misrepresentations and misunderstandings of even the most elementary rudiments of Marxism that its refutation will serve the two fold purpose of clarifying some elementary ideas of basic Marxism 101 and of exposing the absolute insipidity of neoliberal thinking.

The first thing that struck me about this article, "Understanding Karl Marx" by Brad Delong, besides how poorly written it was, is how uninformed the author appears to me on both the origins of Marxism and just what Marx thought. It takes a lot of HUTSPAH to write an article when you don't yourself appear to understand what you are writing about.

Take the opening sentence of the article: "In the beginning was Karl Marx, with his vision of how the Industrial Revolution would transform everything and be followed by a Great Communist Social Revolution-- greater than the political French Revolution-- that would wash us up on the shores of Utopia." Already we can see Delong's understanding is based more on Tom Stoppard than Das Kapital.

Anyone familiar with Marx realizes that he was not the "beginning" of the theory and practice of socialism associated with his name. Both he, and his intellectual collaborator Frederich Engels, arrived at their theories based on the work of a long history of thinkers, both in economics and philosophy, that preceded them. Neither were "utopians" in any use of that term that is relevant to the history of early socialist theory or practice, nor would they have juxtaposed a communist revolution as "social" as compared to an inferior French revolution that was "political."

This first sentence is a hint of what is to come. A series of ill informed assertions and claims, without any supporting arguments in most cases, personal opinions and prejudices put forth in a pontifical manner, and value judgments dished out as if they were factual statements. I haven't the inclination to deal with all the nonsense in this garbled attack on Marx, but I will highlight a few examples of what I am referring to to give the reader some basis to evaluate my criticisms.

Delong says that Marx was "part prophet" and gives some of Marx's opinions about the future of India to demonstrate that we was a failure. This from a man who considers Milton Friedman and Lawrence Summers as two of his gurus and was caught as flat footed as were most in his profession by the collapse of the world capitalist economy.

What did Marx say about India? He said that building a network of railroads would be the "forerunner of modern industry" in that country. That this would lead to the economic development of India but it would not solve the problems of backwardness and poverty for the Indian masses. Every thing Marx said in the rather long extract Delong gives from his writings on India has come to pass. All, except one thing. Marx claimed that until socialism is established in the most industrially advanced countries (and thus is introduced to the more backward) human degradation and exploitation will continue under the capitalist system.

To this Delong replies: "Large-scale prophecy of a glorious utopian future is bound to be false when applied to this world." He follows this up with a lot of idiotic comments about the New Jerusalem and Marx's not having visited the island of Patmos (the old stomping grounds of St. John the Divine). Delong clearly thinks that human exploitation and degradation will never end in any kind of socialist future. He is perfectly content with making his own large-scale prophecy and ridicules Marx not so much for prophecy making but not seeing the future through the eyes of the Ayatollah Friedman-- the true prophet of the glorious future of the unregulated market.

He now tells us what he sees as the "three big ideas" of "Marx the political activist." All three turn out to be theoretical ideas (which were never held by Marx in the simple minded way Delong presents them) and have nothing to do with activism. Marx's activism consisted of forming the International Workingmen's Association, agitating for reforms and improvements in the conditions of the working class (and the abolition of slavery) by giving talks and speeches to worker's groups, and writing popular pamphlets and newspaper articles to raise the class consciousness of working people.

Here are the three "activist" ideas according to Delong. First, before capitalism, exploited people were hypnotized into believing their exploiters "deserved" to take their spoils, but under capitalism "naked exploitation" would be revealed and "class society could not survive." Delong thinks this "completely wrong." But Marx had no such thoughts about the exploited people in pre capitalist times, being fully aware of the numerous slave rebellions and wars against exploitation in the classical world and of the many peasant uprisings in the Middle Ages. As for the awareness of the "naked exploitation" of capitalist society, well the outcome of this is yet to be determined, but Marx was under no delusion that "awareness" alone (i.e., class consciousness) would lead to liberation. He was talking about the struggle of an entire historical epoch, a struggle that is going on at this very moment and we understand very well whose side Delong represents.

Second, the ruling class will never share the social product they control with the workers. Social democracy, which provides income relief and social benefits for the working class will "inevitably collapse or be overthrown" because the right wing doesn't believe it is just to pay workers more than their "marginal product" ( which can only mean to pay them more than the wages socially necessary to reproduce their class). This is very confused thinking. Delong means a faction of the ruling class will never share the wealth because for social democracy to be overthrown by the right wing, then the "left" wing of the ruling class would have to be in power. In a proper socialist state there would be no right wing left to overthrow the workers. But Marx cannot have thought along these lines because in his day there was no distinction between "social democracy" and "socialism." Delong is trying to read back into Marx his limited understanding of twentieth century history.

Third, Marx thought people would work in factories and live in cities, realize their common interests, revolt, and make a just society. Peasants could not do that because they were isolated in the old days and were like "a sack of potatoes which can attain no organization." Delong has obviously missed The Peasant War in Germany when thousands of sacks of potatoes from all over the place rose up to prevent themselves from being mashed, roasted and boiled. Delong tells us that working class consciousness "as a primary source " of identification was weak as ethnos and nationality were more important. He gives 1914 as an example. It is true working class leaders in most countries sided with their governments but not all. The socialist leaders in Russia and the U.S. did not, for example. But workers still thought of themselves as workers for all that. Class struggle and class consciousness still dominate many sections of the working class in different countries and defines their political struggles to this day. Here I think Delong mistook a passing phase for an enduring trend.

Next, Delong moves to "Marx the economist." Here he discusses six of Marx's "big ideas" which he classifies as the "the three goods and the three bads." Lets look at the three goods first.

1. He says Marx was one of the first to realize that periodical crises were a feature of capitalism. By gosh we are having one of them right now-- with Delong's buddies and acquaintances, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers, "in the Hot Seats." But not to worry. Delong tells us he doesn't think that Marx is correct in holding that "financial crises [Marx speaks of crises of over production] were evidence of the long-term unsustainability of the system." Well, that's a relief. "We modern neoliberal economists," Delong writes, "view it not as a fatal lymphoma, but rather like malaria." Delong says we have the tools to save the economy these days-- they are Keynesianism, or if you don't like that, we have monetarism (Friedman). The fact that we can choose, as we "prefer" Delong says, between two conflicting theories gives the impression that neoliberals don't know what they are talking about. In any event, since crises are like malaria they are not "life threatening" but more like "occasional night sweats and fevers." Delong says we have the "economic policy quinine" [two flavors in fact] to manage the problems. I sure hope no one discovers that there are drug resistant forms of malaria. The patient just might die!

2. The second good was that Marx got the industrial revolution right, that it had the possibility to create an abundance to make a great a society where "we people can be lovers of wisdom without being supported by the labor of a mass of illiterate, brutalized, half-starved, and overworked slaves." Delong says that previous societies needed these overworked slaves to produce the surplus that the thinkers and lovers of wisdom needed to live off of. Delong is correct if he thinks Marx saw that industrial capitalism would lead to the abandonment and abolishment of slavery as the major source for the extraction of surplus value for the ruling class and that wage labor (or wage slavery) would become the new means to extract surplus value. In fact feudalism had already abolished slavery. But he is a real nit if he thinks the capitalist system which he is so enamored of, has come anywhere near doing this. Workers in the advanced capitalist countries certainly live better than they did two hundred years ago but they are not part of that "we" that Delong is part of that can sit around loving wisdom all day without depending on the labors of others. The conditions of living of most working people and especially agricultural workers all over the world leaves much to be desired. Marx thought that the possibility of abundance for the people's of the world abided in the creation of SOCIALISM not NAFTA.

3. The Third Good, according to Delong, was that Marx got a lot of the history of England right and his history of the development of capitalism 1500--1850 is still "worth grappling with." Delong agrees with Marx that "the benefits of industrialization" take "generations to kick in" while the "costs of redistributions and power grabs in the interests of market efficiency and the politically powerful rising mercantile classes kick in immediately." This is a round about way of saying capitalism benefits the elite (the capitalists) from the git-go but workers and ordinary people have to wait "generations" to get any benefits. This is the really, really, really slow trickle down theory. Well, so much for the three goods, lets look at the three bads.

1. The First Bad. Delong says Marx holds that increase in labor productivity leads to lower wages for workers therefore capitalism leads to "a combination of obscene luxury and mass poverty." Delong says this is an "empirical question" and he just thinks Marx is wrong. Yes, and Marx would agree with Delong if that is how the problem is formulated. There are issues here. Marx distinguished between absolute and relative wages and said that as labor becomes more productive its RELATIVE position with respect to the capitalist widens. An example would be the gap between the average workers pay and that of the top capitalists was about 1 to 40 twenty years ago and its now about 1 to 400! Marx talked about the ABSOLUTE decline in wages (or income) for the unemployed people who made up the reserve army of labor and others marginalized by society-- the homeless, the mentally ill, the uneducated, etc. The second issue is that Marx was writing about capitalism as it was in the 1850s-- not the capitalism of today that has implemented REFORMS to prevent this absolute immiseration of people. Reforms in large measure prompted by the growth of the labor movement and the influence of progressive demands inspired by the works of Karl Marx. So, Marx was basically correct and the First Bad is not a bad at all.

2. The Second Bad. Delong says Marx thought working for wages was bad and wanted a more humane society so people could "serve their fellow humans." Marx didn't express himself this way at all. He didn't talk about wage labor being "bad". He analyzed how capitalism functions and what its consequences were. Delong thinks he was moralizing about the poor living conditions of the workers in his day. Delong says he thinks "Marx mistook the effects of capitalism for the effects of poverty." What Delong doesn't see is that if you live under a capitalist system and have widespread poverty, that poverty is an effect of the system. Anyway, Delong is all for the "cash nexus" relations of capitalism. People who try to build society on other foundations "do not wind up in their happy place." I suppose we are in a "happy place" today. But that's life. "We neoliberal economists," Delong writes, "shrug our shoulders" and believe "there is no reason why people cannot find jobs they like [he has got to be smoking something-- they can't find jobs at all!] or insist on differentials that compensate them for jobs they don't." Really now. I don't like my job and I insist that I get paid more money as a result. After all wages are not determined by the costs of replacing labor power, but by whether or not I like my job. If I Iike it you can pay me less by the way. This guy is supposed to know something about economics?

3. The Third Bad. We are told Marx thought capitalism "was incapable "of delivering an acceptable distribution of income for anything but the briefest of historical intervals." Why? Delong thought Marx was "pushed" to that view by watching the rise to power of Napoleon III backed by a ruling class that thought democracy only lasted as long it could "pull the wool over the workers eyes" and their property would be saver under a dictatorship." This is actually a meaningless theory as Delong gives us no way to quantifiably measure what he means by "acceptable distribution of wages" or "briefest historical interval." Marx thought that capitalism functions by exploiting the labor power of workers and extracting surplus value from it. In Das Kapital he provides a mathematical formulation of this thesis which allows for the quantification and measurement of the factors involved in this process so that scientific understanding can be achieved. Delong provides only feeling, half baked opinions and vague impressions, all, very subjective, of why he "thinks" Marx is wrong. He tells us that an acceptable income distribution may be hard to maintain but Marx is too rigid in saying the ruling class is "incapable" of providing it. A counter example is Europe in the last 50 years [no U.S. example?] where the creation of "the twentieth- century social democratic mixed economy democratic state can abolish all Marx's fears that capitalist prosperity must be accomplished by great inequality and great misery." Does it now? Social democracy has mixed a great deal of Marxism into capitalism to get that hybrid economy-- progressive income tax, public education, a "well-established public safety net"-- all adopted from the demands in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, and not very high on the to do list of American shoulder shrugging neoliberals. Meanwhile, since the "Crash of '08" the working class in Europe has become mobilized to fight back against neoliberal policies which want to shred the safety net and roll back the worker's gains of the last 50 years. In the U.S. workers and their unions are also gearing to fight back against neoliberalism: you have only to look around you to see that Marx's views are so far superior to the ramblings of Delong and his fellow neoliberals that professional economists (non Marxists) are no longer to be taken seriously.

Delong thinks Marx was a great thinker, almost as great as he himself, (remember the Three Goods) and now wants to figure out how he could have arrived at the Three Bads (which we have seen are really just another Three Goods, for a total of Six Goods.) All Marx's mistakes, Delong says, ultimately derive from two sources: Hegel and Engels.

Lets look at Hegel first. It appears that Delong was bored by reading the first chapter of Das Kapital (he says so) and didn't understand it all. He was especially driven to distraction by the last section on the "Fetishism of Commodities". All that Hegelian dialectic was too much for him-- especially the idea that it is "value" not real "prices" that "are the elements of the real important reality."

Delong declares, "Now I have never found anybody who thinks this way." I am sure that he hasn't. That is why what passes for "economics" in the U.S. is junk science and Delong and his tribe were caught flatfooted by the crisis of 2008. They haven't the faintest idea how the real economy works.

This is one of the reasons Business Week recently asked "What Good Are Economists Anyway?" This was the title of an article by Peter Coy in the 4-27-2009 issue. He writes "Economists mostly failed to predict the worse economic crisis since the 1930s. Now they can't agree how to solve it. People are beginning to wonder: What good are economists anyway." Coy thinks they have some value yet but you only have read Delong to realize they are mostly worthless except as propagandists for the failed free market. I agree with the housing bloger on, quoted my Coy, who wrote: "If you are an economist and did not see this coming, you should seriously reconsider the value of your education and maybe do something with a tangible value to society, like picking vegetables." A few days in the fields and Delong would know the difference between "value" and "price."

Here is how he understands it now. "Things have value not because of the abstraction that socially-necessary labor time is needed to produce them but because of the concretion [?!] that somebody somewhere wants to use it [i.e., a commodity] and has something else that others find useful to trade in turn." That is just pure idealist hogwash. The whole capitalist system boils down to somebody somewhere wants something I have and I want something they have. This is the Iranian Bazaar Model. Because Marx was led astray into his Hegelian version of the labor theory of value he "vanishes into the swamp which is the attempt to reconcile the labor theory of value with economic reality, and never comes out."

Why is Delong so opposed to Marx on this issue? Because if Marx is right Delong knows that capitalism, the system he supports, is an oppressive unjust system. If "the system forces you to sell your labor power for its value which is less than the value of the goods you make [then] human freedom is totally incompatible with wage labor or market exchange" [he should have just said capitalism-- there are markets in non capitalist systems]. Now if capitalism is unjust "that leads the political movements that Marx founded down very strange and very destructive roads." As if the capitalist movements which brought us the international slave trade, colonization, two world wars, and the present mess have not taken us down some "very destructive roads." Well, Delong tells us at this point that he has "done" Hegel and now he will take care of the Engels connection.

To make a long story short, Delong thinks that because Engels' family owned factories in Manchester, and Manchester was indeed a horrible place of dark Satanic mills in 1848, Marx got a bad impression of capitalism. But Manchester was the exception.

If Engels had lived in Birmingham Marx would have seen a different side of capitalism. Birmingham had few large factories and many workers worked from home and or worked in small establishments with the master. In other words, by looking at Manchester, the heart of the Industrial revolution in Britain, instead of Birmingham, a backwater that was lagging behind and still representative of the past rather than the future of capitalist development, Marx misrepresented the facts.

Such is how Delong attempts to "understand" Marxism. With "economists" such as this representing contemporary capitalist "thought" is it too much to hope for that we will soon see the speedy dissolution of this out of date and ruinous social formation?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Maoism Without Mao

Thomas Riggins

"TALIBAN ENLIST AN ARMY OF PAKISTAN'S HAVE-NOTS''-- blazes a headline for a story by Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah in Friday's NEW YORK TIMES (4-17-2009). Reporting from Peshawar, the authors explain how the Taliban took over a major part of Pakistan and plan to take over the country itself in the not too distant future. Here is how it happened in their own words (slightly edited to reduce length and to provide emphasis).

"The Taliban have advanced deeper into Pakistan by engineering a CLASS REVOLT that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants.... " [ They defeated the Pakistani Army, took over the Swat Valley, imposed Taliban law and order, and are heading for the Punjab and eventually the whole of Pakistan-- it only a matter of time! Why?]

"The Taliban's ability to EXPLOIT CLASS DIVISIONS ... is raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely FEUDAL." Pakistan is ruled by "a NARROW LANDED UPPER CLASS that kept its vast holdings while its WORKERS [i.e., peasants] REMAINED SUBSERVIENT...."

The feudal ruling class and its military controlled state has "failed to provide LAND REFORM and even the most basic forms of education and health care. Avenues to advancement for the vast majority of rural poor do not exist." The Punjab (no small potatoes here) "is ripe for the same social upheavals that have convulsed Swat and the tribal areas."

The Times also reports that there is a feeling in some segments of the upper class and its representatives that the Pakistani masses are ripe for revolution.

This is the blueprint that was behind the rise of Maoism and its triumphs in the last century (and more recently in Nepal). The big difference is that Maoism was ideologically based on Marxism and its program, though grounded in the peasantry, was influenced by the advanced ideological positions of a socialistically conscious working class.

This is not the case with the Taliban. The revolutionary potential of the Pakistani masses is being directed towards the establishment of a fundamentalist "Islamic" state which will keep the class relations of feudalism but spread the surplus created by peasant labor in a more equitable way.

The coming of Taliban power will end the control of the Pakistani state by the landlord class (which is rotten to the core and deserves no sympathy for either its fascistic military or its pseudo-democratic political facade) but will not really bring liberation to the Pakistani masses other than needed economic relief to the unending super exploitation they are now enduring.

The Taliban, and all it represents, is a nightmare for Western progressives. It presents us with beautiful example of a dialectical conundrum. The NEGATION of the present Pakistani state is nothing to cry over, but what forces are available for the NEGATION OF THE NEGATION as the Taliban is historically a dead end. The West, and particularly U.S. imperialism has managed to destroy all the really progressive regimes in the region--- I mean the pro-Soviet Afghan government and the former Central Asian Soviet Republics (and the Chinese are on an extended revolutionary holiday) and is engaged even now in both Iraq and Afghanistan in hopeless reactionary military adventures which only strengthen the Taliban and its allies.

Well, this is the dilemma. Are there any viable progressive forces in Pakistan? Does anyone know what their positions are and how they propose to deal with the Taliban?